College-educated millennials, motivated by a preference for vibrant, walkable neighborhoods with access to good public transportation, are helping to drive an economic resurgence in many American cities. At the same time, institutions of higher education (IHEs) are seeking to contribute to sustainable societies by encouraging students to incorporate principles of environmental responsibility into personal consumption practices. Popular writing on the urban migration of millennials—the generation born after 1982—has frequently celebrated the presumed environmental benefits of cities not designed around the automobile. Yet, little research has examined how, if at all, IHE efforts to shape student consumption practices may impact the sustainability of urban areas where many millennials are choosing to live and work. In this paper, we use survey and qualitative data on undergraduates at a large, public university to compare millennials’ commitment to different forms of sustainable consumption to their preference for particular urban forms. We find that student commitment to practicing sustainable consumption in their adult lives is weakest in an area crucial to the global ecological footprint of urban areas: how food is produced and consumed. We also find that evidence for IHE impact on student attitudes and practices related to any form of sustainable consumption is surprisingly lacking. We conclude by suggesting that IHEs have not yet realized their full potential to prepare millennials to be environmentally responsible citizens of sustainable cities, particularly where participation in food systems is concerned.
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All research discussed in this paper was approved by the U-M Institutional Review Board.
A full description of survey methodology is available on the SCIP website: http://graham.umich.edu/leadership/scip
This definition of “sustainable food” was adopted from U-M procurement guidelines.
Measuring whether different conceptions of sustainability emerged at all during each focus group session was deemed the most useful quantitative representation of the qualitative data. Alternative statistics, such as how often different conceptions were mentioned, were potentially misleading, as unusually talkative individual participants can quickly “run up the count” of how often their preferred conception is mentioned during a single session.
Parenthetical letters next to the first student speaker in each passage denote the student year for the focus group: F = freshmen; So = sophomores; J = juniors; Se = seniors; and A = athletes (all years).
Other tests of the relationship between two variables, such as Pearson’s correlation, would not have supported the use of sample weights.
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The authors wish to acknowledge the Graham Sustainability Institute and the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan for their financial and in-kind contributions to this study. The Dow Sustainability Fellows Program and the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise supported the postdoctoral fellowship of the lead author. John Callewaert and Robert Marans provided valuable input and are the lead researchers for the Sustainability Cultural Indicators Program. The 2011–2012 University of Michigan Planet Blue Student Leaders facilitated the focus groups analyzed in this paper with enthusiasm and dedication.
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Schoolman, E.D., Shriberg, M., Schwimmer, S. et al. Green cities and ivory towers: how do higher education sustainability initiatives shape millennials’ consumption practices?. J Environ Stud Sci 6, 490–502 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13412-014-0190-z
- Sustainable consumption
- Higher education